The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook…Ben Mezrich

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook

It’s not personal, it’s business.

That for me was the take-home message of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, which chronicles the conception and founding of Facebook, one of the century’s most life-changing technological breakthroughs. Mezrich introduces us to Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, two Harvard students low on social skills and women, and high on computer savvy and ambition. When Saverin gets his ticket punched to join one of Harvard’s premier Final Clubs, Zuckerberg wants to get noticed too, and he makes a big splash by launching a website called Facemash. Zuckerberg hacks into the Harvard computer system to obtain pictures of upperclasswomen, which are then put on his site two at a time, allowing classmates to vote on who’s ‘hot or not’. When Facemash takes off beyond Zuckerberg’s dreams, he shuts it down fast, but not fast enough to miss getting the attention of everyone at Harvard.

Not all of the attention from Facemash is negative. Three wealthy entrepreneurial Harvard students, twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, have been looking for a programmer for their Harvard dating site, called HarvardConnection, and the publicity from Facemash leads them to Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg agrees to help them write the programming, but either right before he starts the HarvardConnection work, or right after he begins, he comes up with the concept of what he called ‘thefacebook’, a site where people could not only meet and mingle online, but could create their own exclusive circle of friends and invite and disinvite as they chose. With Saverin’s financing, Zuckerberg puts together thefacebook and launches it at Harvard to huge success, neglecting his work for the HarvardConnection. It does not go over well with the Winklevosses and Narendra, who realize Zuckerberg has been neglecting the programming for their site to start up his new one, and who feel that Zuckerberg’s site is eerily similar to their own concept.

Screen shot of the original 'thefacebook'

As the popularity of thefacebook grows, and the program is opened to more colleges across the country, Zuckerberg and a few programmers leave Harvard for California. Saverin stays behind in New York trying to round up more money for the site and at Harvard trying to finish his degree. Sean Parker, founder of Napster, is brought into thefacebook for his Silicon Valley connections and his ability to bring venture capitalist interest and money to the table. Back in New York, Saverin discovers he is being left out some major financial decisions, even though he is CFO, and freezes his account to fund thefacebook, which drives Zuckerberg and Parker to reach out for venture capitalist money to stay afloat.  According to Mezrich, Saverin is then slowly written out of the company by Zuckerberg, Parker and a fleet of attorneys once their financing is more secure. As the big money begins to roll in, and thefacebook becomes Facebook, lawsuits would ensue in the years following from both the Winklevosses and Narendra and also from Saverin, and would be settled out of court for millions of dollars. Following Saverin’s lawsuit, he was reinstated on Facebook as co-founder with Zuckerberg.

There is some debate out there as to the format of this book, and whether it can really be considered non-fiction. Mezrich’s introduction addresses this right away, admitting that he re-created many scenes in the book based on information from documents and interviews and what he felt might have happened after researching this information. This sounded a lot to me like the genre of historical fiction. If you’ve ever read The Killer Angels, for example, you know that the basic historical facts are there about the different battles at Gettysburg and the grim statistics, but Shaara takes a little creative license by using that information and creating fictional dialogue between the characters. Do we know that’s what they really said? No, but it flows well with the historical turn of events and is probably based on or backed up by diary entries and personal letters from the characters themselves.  If that’s the case, is this information really ‘fictional’, then? I’d like to know what you think.

Mezrich  portrays Zuckerberg as a socially awkward, unemotional, friend-screwer who only cares about and does what’s right for the business. Since Mezrich admits Zuckerberg wouldn’t talk to him while he was writing the book, do we really get a chance to know Zuckerberg and his thoughts/motivations? Who knows if this is what really happened, or if Mezrich’s sources were a little more than biased about the goings-on, especially when Zuckerberg has become so unbelievably successful. Every story has two sides, right?  Throughout the story, Zuckerberg is focused and determined to see his company succeed, no matter what the cost, whether it be losing sleep, dropping out of Harvard, going into debt or (I guess) taking advantage of people. This probably happens in business every day. But what Mezrich shows us is that despite Zuckerberg’s drive, Facebook would probably never have gotten off the ground had Saverin and the others not been there to give pivotal advice, money or ideas at just the right time.

It was very interesting to read about the financial dealings associated with getting a company off its feet, and also to get some insider knowledge about the prestigious and mysterious Final Clubs at Harvard. I didn’t really like any of the characters at the end of the book. The part where the Harvard president blew off the Winklevoss twins was probably my favorite part.

Definitely more entertaining than purely informative, and nothing I would ever take as gospel on the founding of Facebook, Mezrich’s book was a quick, light read. I’ll probably never view Facebook quite the same way again. I’m looking forward to watching The Social Network this weekend, for which this book was the basis.

Grade: B

Postscript 1/15: Just finished watching The Social Network. The movie was wonderful and while it took some liberties with the book, remained true to the story and main characters.

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